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9/23/01
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My question for Dr. Apter is:
My husband is from North America, but we live in Australia.  His mother, (who lives in North America) is a very controlling and manipulative woman.  She seems to want to control our life, and uses subtle little techniques such as emotional blackmail (e.g. whenever my husband mentions things that she's said or done that have hurt me, her response is always, "I guess I'm just a bad person").  She sends him email constantly, and being in a senior position with a huge multinational company, he is unable to reply to her.  I, therefore, do my utmost (as I am also quite busy in my profession) to keep an email dialogue going with her about what's going on in our life, but apparently that's not good enough for her.  We call her (internationally) on average twice a month, and can spend up to two hours on the phone with her.  However, she has called us only once in the past 8 months.  And, when I answered the phone, she immediately asked for my husband without even exchanging pleasantries (she is a woman who definitely has better manners than that)!  She has basically said that she does not want to hear from me, because she really wants to hear from my husband instead.  They are coming to Australia to visit us soon (we are paying for virtually everything associated with their trip down here), and I am dreading the time they are going to be here.  They said they needed a new TV, so my husband and I bought them one on a trip to North America.  They said they wanted to be able to keep in touch with us (before she got email), so my husband and I bought them a fax machine.  She said she needed a new VCR, so she just TOOK our VCR (which we had in storage)!  I have gone to great lengths to arrange a vacation, which will hopefully give them some great memories, but I do not know how I am going to handle her for three weeks in my home.  I would be very grateful if you could give me some ideas on how to deal with a woman who says she loves me, but acts in a way that makes it difficult to believe that she does.  She's so clever at this manipulation stuff that she sometimes has my husband fooled.  Also, how do you stop in-laws from expecting freebies from their son and DIL all the time?  They both work, so I don't understand why they keep expecting so many expensive "gifts" from us.  Thanks for your advice.

Dr Apter's reply:
It seems that you need to find ways of responding to her attempts to manipulate you and your husband.  When your mother-in-law says, "I guess I'm just a bad person", she stops your complaints dead by making this self pitying statement, which exaggerates your complaints so that you dare not pursue them.  You could try brushing that aside, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes jokingly, and explain that you want to focus on one problem or one issue, and that you hope she can do this with you.  If she refuses to exchange pleasantries on the phone, then keep talking until she does, and even charm her with a statement that you want to find out how she's doing and what her news is.  If she takes things you don't want her to take, calmly identify what she's done ("You took our VCR, and we're not ready to pass it on yet").  She expects freebies because she gets them, and this could change.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My in-laws, especially my MIL, can't seem to get enough of my husband and me.  Lately, they have visited for 8 weekends straight, not including weekdays, and I feel completely SMOTHERED.  I've been married for about 7 months.  Although both my in-laws are very nice people, I feel like I've been forced to join their family instead of starting a "new" one with my husband.  I've expressed my concern to my husband regarding my discontent with the situation, but activities keep getting planned, sometimes without me knowing 'til after the fact.  They even paid for us to go on vacation with them for a few days.  My husband is close to his parents, and I believe their intent is to help us with our new house, etc.  However, I'm just disappointed that I can't seem to establish that boundary.  My MIL is pushy and opinionated, and that doesn't help the situation, when she basically tells my husband they're coming over, or do this, do that, etc.  Your thoughts?

DR Apter's reply:
If your needs are not being met through your usual channels of communication, then it's time to raise the volume.  You could preempt other's plans by making your own, or declining to follow those plans that don't suit you.  There may be complaints, either from your in-laws or from your husband.  You can simply explain that this is what you want or need.  If you stand firm, without attacking anyone else, you may find that you become a stronger influence in shaping the family you want.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Before my child was born, my mother-in-law really didn't bother me.  We were not close, but I was nice to her, and did not mind her.  Ever since my child was born, seven months ago, she has begun to ruin my marriage, and my life.  She always wants to visit the baby, and she practically smothers her.  She will never let anyone else hold the baby if she is around, and she makes snide remarks that really hurt my feelings.  Then, she covers them up, and pretends that she is joking.  I guess I feel hurt because she is obsessed with the baby, and I feel like she really does not care for me.  I have a hard time leaving my child with someone whom I don't like, even if it is my child's Grandma.  I know that my MIL is having marital problems, and I know that she latches on to our child in order to feel love and feel needed.  I can't stand the way she interferes with my family.  I wish we could move away from my in-laws.  My husband thinks that I have problems, but I know that my problem is with a mother-in-law who doesn't know her place!!  I am feeling very resentful and very tired of her invading my space and my boundaries.  She wants to be the favorite grandma, and she gets jealous when I do things with the baby, or when my mom watches the baby.  I am so miserable, because my husband has convinced me that I am the one who has the problem - not his mom.  Is the problem mine??  My husband gets upset with me when I decline offers from his mom to have dinner, but she calls around dinner time, when I am making dinner for my family.  She is so intrusive, she has totally turned me off to the idea of having more kids.  I sometimes wonder if divorcing my husband is the answer.  Sometimes, I feel like he chooses his family over me, and I am very resentful of him.  And these feelings are affecting all areas of our marriage.  I just don't like the feeling that my MIL is competing with me.  How do I deal with boundary issues when my husband thinks there is no need for boundaries?  He tells me his parents can come over any day, any time, because it is their granddaughter.  I feel completely powerless and hurt.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

DR Apter's reply:
I often hear that an in-law relationship changes when a baby comes into the family.  It seems that you are now having problems on many fronts.  Perhaps you could start by telling your husband how you feel: you need his support, you need to feel that you are more important to him than his family, or at least that he is able to respond to you and to understand your needs.  The fact that your mother-in-law has emotional needs now is not a reason to give in to her on every count.  Think about how much time you can give her with the child, and then stick to that.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My fiancé and I are having serious issues with her mother.  Throughout her childhood, her mother would both verbally and physically abuse her.  Now that she has gotten older, her mother will continually ignore us if we do not do things her way, or if we are not "happy" all the time.  The main reason she does this is because she still financially supports my fiancé  However, the effects of this abusive relationship are starting to finally surface, and I have no clue how to deal with the situation.  Please, please help.

DR Apter's reply:
This is a difficult one.  Your fiancé's mother is clearly used to getting her own way, and uses threats of emotional coldness and disapproval to punish anyone in her family who steps out of line.  You can try two different things.  You can address this problem, and explain that you want to maintain a good relationship with her even though you are not doing things according to her plans - and await a softening mood.  Or, you may decide that remaining close to her is too costly in terms of your own well-being.  The financial situation will also have to be assessed.  There is no quick fix for this.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
How do I handle my MIL's controlling behavior and insults?  I had a baby.  A week later, MIL, FIL, and SIL all came to stay in our two bedroom apartment.  After giving birth vaginally, I had to sleep on an airmat on the floor, so that 300lb. MIL, who has back problems, could use our bed.  She bathed once the whole 8 days she was here, and smelled of body odor.  MIL and SIL (who also never bathes) were angry, because my husband told them to wash their hands before handling the baby.  I had a difficult labor, and was on pain medication that made me drowsy.  MIL kept giving me strange looks.  I cooked and cleaned up after them.  MIL only offered to cook one time while she was here.  SIL does not know how to cook (25 years old, and still living at MIL's house).  Then, MIL insisted that SIL live with us to help us raise our son.  I told her, "No thanks.  I am a stay-at-home mom."  MIL was rude about several different things, including the cat, the baby, and me in general.  All the while, I thought, "Who is this woman?"  Then, she wanted to come back and stay two more weeks.  I even made a video of the family, and she made rude comments on that.  I did not argue with her.  I tried to avoid confrontation.  I did not feel well, and I had a new baby.  We are going to visit them next month, and I am dreading it.  How do I handle the snide remarks and sarcasm?  I wish that I never had to see her again.  But I want my child to have his grandparents in his life.  Please tell me how to handle this.

DR Apter's reply:
There is clearly no point in avoiding confrontation.  In trying to avoid confrontation you have done everything she wants, and given up your comfort and your energy - and of course you have not been offered gratitude or love in return because that would be an acknowledgment that you have done more than you have to.  In the future, I suggest you make your own needs heard.  Try not to be cowed by any sarcasm or criticism.  Look at her calmly, and repeat what you want.  Try to avoid getting pulled into a counter attack.  In that way, you can confront her without endangering your child's relationship with his grandparents.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Help!  I have a stupid MIL!  1) She's an immigrant who has lived in the USA for more than 30 years.  She still doesn't read/write English (my family are also immigrants - we all speak perfect English, and we have all educated ourselves).  2) Her husband and other child died when my husband was very young, leaving her with a small business and rental apartments.  BUT, she couldn't manage the business effectively.  She eventually chose to close the business and convert all of the property into rental units.  3) Her son, my husband, now owns 50% of the business, but she won't allow him to run the business professionally (we both have advanced degrees - and we have the brains to handle the problems that she's created).  4) Originally, I didn't want to have anything to do with this renovation project - but my husband sucked me in, asking my opinion on how to handle situations that my MIL created.  Every time I said that I didn't want to get involved, my husband would say, "You're my wife.  I need you to be involved."  I'm the strategic thinker.  I DON'T WANT TO INVEST ANY MORE OF MY TIME IN A PROJECT THAT REQUESTS MY ADVICE AND HELP - AND THEN THEY DON'T USE IT.  ULTIMATELY, SHE CREATES EVEN LARGER PROBLEMS.  I'm at wits end.  I don't want to see her and talk to her.  And, even worse, my husband can't stand up to his mother.  He wants a family.  I don't want to have a MIL like her - a pathetic role model, overweight (and doesn't take care of herself), and incompetent!  I don't want to bring up a child in an environment where he/she could discover her values!  Help!

DR Apter's reply:
Try to remember that you are not as helpless as you present yourself.  You are able to see precisely how you have been drawn into a project you don't want to be involved in.  Seeing how this happens is more than half the battle.  The best role model you can be is someone who is able to state clearly and firmly what she wants and needs for herself, while looking out for the people she loves.  When your husband gives you his line about needing you, you can counter with, "I am your wife and I need you to hear what I am saying."

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My fiancé and I are in our very early twenties.  Ever since we started dating, his mother has had a problem with me.  She has also done a wonderful job of brainwashing her husband and other relatives into believing her weird stories.  She saves her hurtful and extremely rude comments for the moments when other family or friends are not around.  I have started to realize this, because some visits with her went quite well, and others were terrriiibbblllee.  I want to be her friend, but she seems to think that everything should be done her way, or else it will be hell.  I am not sure how to respond to her behavior.  I am definitely not going to leave her son due to her rude and immature behavior towards me.  Her most famous comment to me since our engagement was, "I wish you would wait a few more years until I am ready for you to be married."  Her ideal age is 25, and then everything will be "peachy", bullsh!t!!  DF is not starting to stand up to her.  I think that he is just as much afraid of her as I am.  It has gotten to the point where I don't even want to have her involved in planning the wedding, because I have anxiety attacks just thinking of being around her.  I have to have the "I hate your mother" speech every time I go to see her.  What should I do about this situation??

DR Apter's reply:
I think you feel you hate her because you feel out of control (or controlled by her) in her presence.  Instead of hating her, learn how to maintain your power to control your own life when she tries to take that away from you.  Perhaps you could explain to your fiancé that you do not want her involved in wedding preparations.  Perhaps, instead of telling him you hate his mother, explain how anxious you feel and ask his help in maintaining the harmony.  Also, be sure to tell him that you do want her to be your friend.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I'm surprised that I can't quite figure this out myself.  In fact, I'm a psych grad student, and thought I had a pretty good handle on dysfunction in families.  Well, my MIL was very supportive when I got into grad school, volunteering to watch my little ones, who were 5 and one at the time that I went to class.  She lives down the street, and watched the kids for about the first year or so of grad school.  Then, when my littlest was 3, and until he was 4, we used a baby-sitter, and had the kids at her house.  This past year (my youngest is 5 now), my youngest has been in an after school program, and then goes by bus, with his older brother, to our house.  At that point, MIL picks them up and watches them from 4-6 PM, Monday - Friday.  This has been a great help, as I am now on an internship and am not making any money yet.  The problem is that, about two months ago, my MIL pulled my husband aside and began berating me to him.  "She has never really made any money.  She thinks only of herself.  She is too controlling of you.  You never see your family."  My husband told me these things, and so did my older son, who had overheard her.  I had to spend time talking to him about what grandma meant (that I was this or I was that).  Then, the problem got worse when our rent went up astronomically, and my husband asked my MIL for financial help (would she consider her old offer of buying a house with us?).  We had been in credit card debt before, from me not working, and here we were once again in danger of racking up our credit cards.  We have excellent credit.  We're panicking.  My MIL screamed at him about how she had lost all respect for me, that my master's degree just wasn't good enough for me, that I was selfish, and why didn't I just go work at a fast food restaurant or something.  It was horrible.  This is not unusual for her, though.  My husband spent three/four years in psychoanalysis dealing with (in part) the effects of her verbal abuse on him and his siblings.  Recently, I tried to confront her about what she had said.  In part, to tell her that I had a job offer for after internship, and that we had a subletter who would help us tide things over until I had paying work.  She wagged her finger in my face (really "wagged" it in my face, in a way that I have never before experienced) and said all the same things that she had said to my husband.  But, she threw in "you f*cked your father to get back at your mother!"  I had been sexually abused for 8 years by my stepfather, and that is probably my main reason for going into psychology.  I worked through it with the help of a wonderful therapist.  I feel that when someone says something like this to you, no matter what help they have given you, it is time to end the relationship.  I don't feel that there is anywhere to go.  She said this while my children were in the house.  I don't think they understood, but even so, it was hideously terrible.  I'm a good mom, and my husband and I love each other and our children very much.  I think that someone needs to draw the line with this woman.  My husband is supportive, but his idea is to call a "family meeting", and to prove to everyone that he has "balls" (remember, they all think I "control" him) to just look his mother in the face and say "F*ck you, mom," and walk out.  I think this is poetic, in a way, because she absolutely never apologizes for her tirades, and never listens to reason.  However, I am conservative.  I respect my husband's decision to say what is on his mind to his mom, but I would hope that he would be able to be effective without being rude.  Any help would be appreciated.  Signed, I thought I would know the answer to this kind of stuff.

DR Apter's reply:
It would take more courage for your husband to sit down and tell his mother that he would like to continue a relationship with her, but that some things have to be sorted out before this can happen.  He could say that he loves both of you, and that it is outrageous to insult his wife, and that had anyone else said such things to you, the relationship would be over.  Having made that clear, you could go on to discuss why she would say such a thing.  The important thing is not for her to apologize, but for her to understand she will be called to account for herself when she insults you.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I have heard a lot of information out on the web about DILs getting along with MILs.  Just next month, I am going to become a MIL for a young lady who has been awful to our family.  I'm trying to overlook what she's done, because my son is marrying her.  I've been trying to see my son when he is on leave from the Navy for a year, and she told me that she doesn't know how she'll feel about him visiting his family this next month.  She feels insecure and frightened, and told us so.  I have raised this young man for 20 years, and I miss him too (so does his father and brother).  And, I don't think it's fair.  I would love to love her as his wife, but I feel she is hogging him for her own family, and for herself alone.  My husband is really bummed.  All we would like to do is simply have a day of his leave to reconnect.  My son doesn't want to look like a sissy, so he does what she wants.  I don't know how to handle all this.  I'm 42, and saying, "I raised him, with all that love, for THIS to happen?"  Thank you for any insights you may have!

DR Apter's reply:
It would set a good precedent if you were able to discuss this openly with your son and his fiancé  Perhaps you could begin by exploring some kind of compromise.  Could you go visit them for a day?  If you show that you are trying to see things from their point of view, and that you are willing to compromise, then your soon to be daughter-in-law might become more relaxed.  It is a good sign that she has told you she feels insecure and frightened.  Explain that you wish to take this into account, and also find some way of seeing them both.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Dr. Apter: Is it common for a MIL to be jealous of her DIL?  I don't think my MIL likes me very much, and she often makes jokes, and comments, that really hurt my feelings.  They not only hurt my feelings, I begin to dwell on her remarks, and wonder why she said them, and I wonder if she really does not like me.  Is it better to ignore her disrespect, and jokes??  I feel like she does not respect me at all.  For example, she recently dropped by when we were swimming.  I had my child dried off, and I was dressed and ready to go.  She knew that we were leaving, and she proceeded to take my child into the water and play with my child.  I know my MIL was just having fun, and I know that if I had asked her not to, I would have been a "jerk".  How can I stop my MIL from getting to me?  Should I ignore her remarks??  How can I get her to respect me, and stop treating me like a child?  Please help.  Thanks Again.

DR Apter's reply:
The best way for you to prevent your mother-in-law from "getting to you" is to point out to her that she is hurting you.  I think you dwell on her comments because you accepted them, without confrontation, at the time.  But by confrontation I do not mean that you can criticize her: just tell her clearly and calmly that a remark was hurtful.  You could even ask her whether something is troubling her, some problem that led her to be hurtful.  And if she acts inconsiderately, simply state what you want: for example, explain that you are ready to leave, and that you want your child ready too.  It will be more difficult for her to manipulate the situation if you make very clear what it is you want.  Your question involves a person's comments and jokes that are hurtful but can be made because they come in the guise of humor.  Rather than ignore your mother-in-law's disrespect or jokes, I suggest that you identify them.  You could say, "I feel that remark/behavior undermines me".  You could explain that it is important to you that she understands how you feel, even if she does not intend to make you feel that way.  It will be easier for her to accept how you feel, and modify her behavior, if she does not feel her own feelings are being criticized.

 


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Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife
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